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Administration will try Benghazi attack suspect in D.C.

June 29, 2014 at 4:24 PM EDT
The suspect in the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, appeared in U.S. District Court on Saturday in the nation’s capitol. Yesterday, the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, plead not guilty. Representative Mike Rogers said Khatallah is being “compliant, but not cooperative” with interrogators. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Michael Schmidt, who is covering the case for the New York Times in D.C.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The Obama Administration has decided to try the man accused of orchestrating the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, in the nation’s capitol. That attack left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

We’re joined now from Washington by Michael Schmidt at the New York Times. So this is pretty unusual for several reasons. Let’s just first talk about having the venue in D.C. There’s already some pushback that this is a very expensive proposition.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yes, typically in the past, since post 9/11, these trials have been in New York or in Alexandria, Virginia. But there’s a real advantage to having them in New York, because the jail is actually connected to the courthouse by a tunnel. So you don’t have to move the suspect every time in a car that he has to appear in court. We saw that yesterday when the hearing was over, a big motorcade came flying right out of the courthouse, the streets were shut down, sirens were blasting, there were men in bulletproof vests and machine guns on the street. So that is something we’ll probably see every day that that suspect has to be moved back and forth here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, what about the evidence in the case, the FBI wasn’t able to get the crime scene, so to speak, for weeks.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yeah, this an interesting case, this is not just a murder that happened and the police came out and they put up the tape and they went and did their evidence collection, and then went back and indicted in front of a grand jury. This is something that happened on the other side of the world.

Investigators weren’t able to get into the crime scene until several weeks after it actually occurred. That was after members of the media had gone in, after militia members could go back in and go through whatever documents were at the U.S. still at the mission there. So this is not been ideal from the beginning. And on top of that, the case will rely in part on witnesses from Libya, who will have to come over and testify and will have to stand up to cross-examination in the courts here. So this is not your average case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So your reporting says that he was cooperative under interrogation on a U.S. warship before he got here, yet he has plead not guilty. What do we know about the type of intelligence that he’s shared.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well there’s a difference between giving up everything about what his role may have been and being cooperative with them about, say, what the security situation in Libya is like, what he knows about past or prior planned attacks. Or, sort of, his knowledge of what ties Al Qaeda might have to groups in that part of the country. So cooperative doesn’t necessarily mean he gave up all this stuff about the attack, it may have been about others’ roles in the attack and such. So we know that he’s been cooperative but beyond that we don’t have a ton.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what’s the timeline expected for this trial?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, we know that he’ll be, he has two appearances scheduled coming up. One on Wednesday and then a few days after that, the following week. And who knows this could be something that goes on for a very long time. He’s only been indicted on one count, that’s sort of a placeholder, and the government’s expected to indict him on several more going forward as it feels more comfortable with the case. This is something that could go on for many, many years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Schmidt of the New York Times joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.